Saturday, February 25, 2012

Writing the Impossible: A Review of More Things Impossible: The Second Casebook of Dr. Sam Hawthorne (2006)

If any single person were to get my vote for the "greatest modern master of the mystery short story," it would have to be the late Edward D. Hoch, who passed away four years ago at the age of seventy-seven, up to the very end an astonishingly prolific author.  What would have been Hoch's eighty-second birthday was just three days ago, so I thought it would be especially appropriate now to do a piece on this great mystery writer.

Although at his death Hoch amazingly was nearing the 1000 mark in mystery short stories authored and had created an impressive array of series investigators, my favorite Hoch detective has remained Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the country physician who during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s solved a really quite surprisingly large number of impossible crimes (usually murders) in his not so peaceful little corner of New England.

Crippen & Landru, that wonderful mystery short story publisher, produced the first "Dr. Sam" story collection when it published the original dozen Dr. Sam stories as Diagnosis: Impossible in 1996 (this volume was the fourth book done by Crippen & Landru, after books by John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham and Marcia Muller).  Ten years later C&L followed with More Things Impossible, a collection of the next fifteen Dr. Sam tales (these originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 1978 and 1983).

Edward D. Hoch

The appeal of Hoch's Dr. Sam stories is twofold, I think.

First, they offer a dazzling mother lode of miracle problems--the sort of superbly ingenious, densely clued mystery puzzles associated most prominently in mystery genre history with the brilliant locked room novels and stories of John Dickson Carr.  When I bought my copy of the first Dr. Sam collection way back in 1996, I was moved to write Professor Doug Greene, the distinguished mystery scholar and Crippen & Landru guru, an Edward D. Hoch fan letter, telling Doug that Hoch seemed to me "a certain mystery author reinCARRnated."  The puzzles Dr. Sam confronts often are that clever.

Second, however, the stories have a great deal of appeal for their local and period color. Though Hoch never forgets he is presenting readers with a puzzle, he nevertheless manages as well in each story to give an appealing and convincing portrait of a time and place (charmingly, Dr. Sam's Northmont is a neighbor village to Ellery Queen's Shinn Corners--see EQ's The Glass Village).  Indeed, I would say that the Dr. Sam stories not only boast many marvelous puzzles, but also that they constitute one of the mystery genre's finest collections of local color fiction.

More Things Impossible offers readers a bounty of fifteen mystery stories, dated from 1927 to 1931.  In each one Hoch presents a fairly clued miracle problem.  Only one of them I managed to fully deduce--and that was one Dr. Sam's not over-keen Watson, Sheriff Lens, managed to solve, which may tell you something!  Opinions will vary, but my favorites are:

"The Problem of the Revival Tent"--Dr. Sam himself is the suspect when a revivalist huckster is stabbed to death in a tent which only he and Dr. Sam occupied.  The man had a faith healing son who was filling some of Dr. Sam's incurable patients with false hope, enraging Dr. Sam.  This is one of my very favorites in the collection, because the clueing to method and motive is so masterful (also it bears a certain resemblance in its subject matter to an important episode of the fine American television mystery series "The Mentalist").

"The Problem of the Whispering House"--Dr. Sam solves a murder in a sealed secret room in a haunted house.  What more could you ask for than this highly Carrian setting?

"The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle"--Who poisoned the judge during the murder trial?  And how?!  Just how did the poison get into the glass?  It seems impossible, but Dr. Sam deduces.  This one reminded me a bit of John Dickson Carr's The Black Spectacles.

"The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill"--This one introduces the Pilgrim Memorial Hospital, which is frequently mentioned in the stories.  It also is one of Dr. Sam's most bizarre cases: a Satanic windmill that sets people in it afire.  Though the setting is Carrian or Chestertonian (the author specifically references G. K. Chesterton), the problem itself is like one out of John Rhode, another clever creator of impossible crimes. There's also a bit of a lesson in social justice.

"The Problem of the Octagon Room"--Sheriff Lens is getting married!  His fiancĂ©e has chosen to have the ceremony in the famous Octagon Room of a Cape Cod mansion. There's a bit of an impasse, however, when a corpse is found in that very room (when locked, naturally).  Here Hoch references S. S. Van Dine's locked room murder in The Canary Murder Case, but even those who have read that classic crime novel may not deduce the solution!

"The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car"--Dr. Sam goes hard-boiled when he confronts an impossible vanishing while being held prisoner by a group of bootlegging gangsters. Carr crossed with Dashiell Hammett.

"The Problem of the Hunting Lodge"--"Who could have done it?...A tramp passing through the woods?"  "A tramp who didn't leave footprints?"  Dr. Sam's visiting parents appear in this one, which involves another clever impossible killing.  No one on earth would really try to accomplish a murder this way, I suspect, but it's all fairly clued!

"The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse"--Perhaps my favorite story in More Things Impossible is this Christmas tale of an impossible murder in a haunted lighthouse (a man is stabbed and thrown down to the ground but it appears certain that no one else was near him at the time).  In succession Hoch provides not one, but two, brilliant solutions.  I dare you to get even one right (I partly did)!

By my count Edward Hoch wrote 72 Dr. Sam tales before his death, taking the brilliant amateur detective medico up to the end of World War Two.  I so would have liked for Hoch to live to tell us of some of Dr. Sam's Cold War exploits, but what he gave us is, as is, one of the very finest bodies of short fiction in the history of the mystery genre.

Crippen & Landru has a third Dr. Sam collection in the planning stage, I understand.  All devotees of classic puzzle and local color mystery fiction will love it, I am sure.  Indeed, one might say that it would be impossible for them not to love it.

Note: A few hardcover copies of More Things Impossible are still available from Crippen & Landru (the first collection is out of print).  It's a high quality limited edition, with a frontis of Edward Hoch, and it's numbered and signed by him.  There's also a tipped-in booklet with an additional Hoch story.  See --The Passing Tramp


  1. Curt, I could not agree with you more - the Sam Hawthorne stories were the reason that I subscribed to EQMM for many years. While I always looked forward to the Hoch story - indeed, sometimes it would be the only story that I read - the Hawthorne stories were the pinnacle of Hoch's writing.

    I've managed to collect all but about five of them and am still on the lookout for the rest, and I hope that Crippen and Landru consider the ebook form so that more people can get their hands on More Things Impossible. I've had one query over on my review of the book as to how to get a copy

  2. Thanks for the comment and the link. Apparently Crippen & Landru still has some copies of MTI available in hardcover. Granted, that's about $43 a copy, but it's a good investment. I hope too though that cheaper editions can be made available again.

    I really am looking forward to a third collection--and a fourth and a fifth, I hope! There are very few mystery short story writers I rank above Hoch: Conan Doyle, Austin Freeman, Ellery Queen, Chesterton come to mind, but not a many more.

  3. I meant to point out as well that your choice of favourite stories is interesting as, apart from The Revival Tent, it differs from mine completely. Just goes to show how strong this collection is. It'll be a while before one of my favourites, The Problem of the Candidate's Cabin, a nod to The Murders In The Rue Morgue, complete with monkey.

  4. You neglected to specify an important aspect of one the strengths you mentioned that, I feel, is often overlooked: it's not just the dazzling amount of miracle problems, but also the sheer originality and variety of the premises that makes this such a wonderful series. It's not just one murder after another in a locked and bolted room, but all sorts of miraculous crimes that take place under circumstances I have never encountered before in other locked room stories.

    For example, the first Sam Hawthorne story I read, "The Problem of the Crowded Cemetery," had the doctor solving the conundrum of a fresh corpse in a recently unearthed coffin and another story (forgot the title) focuses on the theft of a letter from a post office. It's a relatively simple and unexciting crime by itself, but the impossible angle turned it into a genuine puzzler and I thought the solution was really nice and original.

    I can't wait for C&L to publish the third volume in this series! :)

  5. "The Problem of the Octagon Room", It might perhaps have been inspired by a Edmund Crispin'tale, "The Name on the Window", a Locked Room in a Palladian-style pavilion?


  6. TomCat,

    Yes, the originality is striking. Only two or three stories in this collection felt like they were using some somewhat overlapping motifs. Given his prolific production that he is so original is even more impressive.

    Pietro, "The Name on the Window" I am not recollecting. Is that one of the published stories?

  7. "The Name on the Window" is in "Beware of the Trains",1953.

  8. Excellent article, Curt. Nothing is enough to promote this gem. In my opinion, the two Dr. Hawthorne collections (this one in particular) are among the best collections of pure mystery short-stories ever published, period.

    Inevitably, Edward D. Hoch's output comprises a lot of routine work and some definitely minor stuff. I believe this may have given some people a distorted view of his merits. In fact, if we ignore the lesser efforts, what remains is still a ridiculously large body of work bearing comparison with the best of the Golden Age. The fact that Hoch is not a household name can be partly ascribed to the supposedly prevailing tastes in mystery fiction and the malignancy of publishers and editors, but Golden Age fans in general are also to blame, because they usually prefer to unearth a fourth tier author published in 1935 instead of enjoying any writer alive enough to have a cup of tea with. I was one of these for some time, too, until I discovered Hoch circa 1987.

  9. I'm hoping at some point there will be more collections of some of Hoch's other series. I'm not a massive fan of the Nick Velvet stories - they always felt a bit too contrived for me - but the later series featuring Alexander Swift, set during the American Civil War, or the Stanton & Ives stories were absolutely first rate.

    Oh, and the story TomCat mentioned about the theft of the letter was The Problem of the Pink Post Office.

  10. Thank you for having announced the release of my blog, reserved for the English-speaking public, in Gadetection forum.

  11. Wonderful review Curt - Just wanted to add my two pennies-worth of total agreement - I love the Sam Hawthorne stories and like Steve certainly prefer them over the perhaps too anecdotal Nick Velvet tales (as collected by C&L - I have not managed to get my mitts on some of the earlier collections). The third collections was announced such a long time ago but it is always the first thing I hope has been updated when I check out the site 0 C&L are certainly to be cherished). I have only read a few of the Simon Ark stories but really liked them - I keep hoping for a large collection of those too!